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Never on Sunday

On monday morning, Craig Allen was nowhere to be found throughout his store’s expansive floor displays of wines from around the world. On this, his slowest business day of the week, Allen was in his office dreaming of the day he believes could be one of his best: Sunday.

“The fact that in the year 2002, I can’t open my store for business because of religious reasons, just blows my mind,” said Allen, owner of All Star Wine & Spirits in Latham. “This plaza is packed on Sundays—it’s a great shopping day—but because of these blue laws I can’t even open my doors.”

A bill introduced into the state Assembly earlier this spring directly addressed this concern. The bill (A 11058) would amend the laws restricting the sale of liquor or wine on Sundays, allowing sales after noon, similar to off-premise beer sales. After the bill was introduced by Assemblyman Ron Canestrari (D-I-Cohoes) in April, its was moved to the Economic Development, Job Creation, Commerce and Industry Committee, and never made it to the floor. The state Legislature ended the 2002 session this week, leaving New York’s blue laws unchanged.

Though nearly half of the states in the union have overturned their blue laws, New York state still forbids the over-the-counter sale of wine and liquor on Sunday. And state lawmakers still can’t agree on whether the regulations have aged well or fermented long past their usefulness.

According to Auburn University professor and blue-laws scholar David Laband, the historical origins of restrictions on Sunday trading date back to pagan traditions under the emperor Constantine around 320 A.D.

“There is historical disagreement to the origin of the term ‘blue law,’” Laband said. “But the earliest edict I have found is: ‘Let . . . all city people and all tradesman rest upon the venerable day of the sun.’”

While some believe the blue laws represent a sensible code of living, others view them as antiquated restrictions on the free will of businesses and individuals.

“These laws represent the last bastions of the previous era,” said Canestrari. “These are Christian laws being enforced against all citizens, and society has evolved and changed.”

Canestrari is quick to mention that 23 states currently allow the sale of wine and liquor on Sundays, including three of New York’s neighboring states: New Jersey, Vermont and Massachusetts.

“Oregon passed Sunday sales earlier this year, so it’s not like New York is going out on a limb here,” Canestrari said. “I think allowing sales of wine and liquor is an innovative way for the state to raise tax revenues.”

Though a similar bill exists in the Senate, opposition to changing the blue laws was apparent and outspoken. Assemblyman Jack McEneny (D-Albany) said “whiskey on Sundays” is not in the best interests of liquor-store owners or the people of New York.

“It would be consistent with the state’s policy of trying to balance the budget by offering people the opportunity to increase the amount they drink and gamble,” McEneny said. “I just don’t see how this bill increases New Yorkers’ quality of life.”

McEneny feels the bill would also place great strain on small liquor-store owners, many of whom, he said, are already taxed trying to operate a small business, working with limited staff six days a week.

“If a bill was approved I’d have no choice but to open, but I really don’t want any part of it,” said Bradley Junco, owner of Capital Wine and Spirits in Albany. “This is a very hands-on business, and operating seven days a week would be difficult.”

Junco, who currently works 55 to 60 hours a week, doesn’t think much business would be generated from sales on Sunday, but a study prepared by the American Economics Group for the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S., Inc., claims otherwise.

Based on state and local sales and excise taxes derived from liquor sales in 2001, the study states that Sunday sales would create an additional $70 million in taxes annually. While the information sounds positive, the opposition claims that most of the money would end up running through the bank accounts of large retailers, thus jeopardizing small-business owners.

“Allowing Sunday sales would allow the big wholesaler to put the smaller seller out of business,” McEneny said.

Not so, according to Allen, who notes that allowing the Sunday sale of liquor and wine wouldn’t force businesses to be open—it would just offer them the option. Allen is also quick to point out that the blue laws have been modified since their inception, now solely affecting his line of business.

“The blue laws used to restrict all purchasing and trade activity on Sundays,” Allen said. “Nowadays that’s not true—people just aren’t allowed to buy wine and liquor.”

—Travis Durfee

You! Behind the Tree! Don’t Move!

Environmentalism becomes next target in the war on terror

In the wake of Feb. 12 congressional hearings on the purported “eco-terrorism” threat, Jeffrey Kerr, lawyer for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, wonders whether activists will soon be asked, “Are you now or have you ever been a vegetarian?”

Kerr speaks only half in jest. PETA was targeted as a supporter of eco-terrorism at the hearings because in April 2001, the animal-rights group donated $1,500 to the Earth Liberation Front press office. In a letter from U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Colo.), PETA was asked to defend the contribution. The group said the money was meant to “assist [then-ELF spokesman] Craig Rosebraugh with legal expenses related to free speech.”

The congressional hearings focused overwhelmingly on the property destruction committed by groups like the Animal Liberation Front and ELF. McInnis, chairman of the House Resources Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health and organizer of the hearings, has made a fight against eco-terrorism his new crusade. He made waves last fall when he sent a letter, signed by several other Republicans, to eight mainstream environmental groups, including Greenpeace, Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation, Natural Resources Defense Council, Earthjustice and League of Conservation Voters. Waving the bloody shirt of Sept. 11, he challenged them to “publicly disavow the actions of eco-terrorist organizations” like ELF and ALF.

Although none of the groups either advocated or committed such acts—and some, like the Sierra Club, had a history of denouncing them—they all responded affirmatively, albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm or disdain. Earthjustice executive director Vawter Parker wrote that he was “disgusted by the assumption of the signers of the letter that the people answer to Congress; it used to be the other way around.” McInnis’ letter was viewed as a clumsy attempt to establish guilt by association, and his subsequent claim of having formed a “coalition” with the groups to combat eco-terrorism, laughable.

“It’s the newest brand of McCarthyism, because lies and half-truths are being spewed forth by people in the pockets of industries,” Kerr said of being targeted at the hearings. “It’s frightening from a freedom and liberty point of view when you are labeled a terrorist because you’re helping to defend an individual’s fundamental constitutional rights.” PETA has had nothing to do with the actions labeled as eco-terrorism, Kerr said, and neither condemns nor condones them.

ELF and ALF—more autonomous cells and individuals than actual groups—claim to have inflicted upwards of $40 million in property damage over the past five years. The sabotage campaign has been waged with firebombs and directed at targets that include lumber companies, a ski-resort development and an agricultural genetic-research institute.

ELF guidelines posted online require group members to “take all necessary precautions against harming any animal, human and non-human”—and no deaths or serious injuries have resulted from any ELF or ALF direct actions. Despite their strictures against inflicting harm on individuals, the two groups are now considered by the FBI to be the country’s foremost domestic terrorism threat.

As the hearings demonstrated, since Sept. 11, an ongoing effort to criminalize nonviolent, direct-action dissent by associating it with violence and property destruction has gained steam. Two bills that would virtually criminalize protest—and not just violent protest—are now pending at the state and federal levels. U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt (R-Washington) introduced his Agroterrorism Prevention Act last August to combat attacks on “plant enterprises.”

Under Nethercutt’s bill—which upgrades penalties for conduct “intended to injure, intimidate, or interfere with plant or animal enterprises”—uprooting a field of genetically engineered corn would be considered terrorism. Another bill before the Pennsylvania state Legislature, hailed as a “model bill” by the anti-environmental Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, would also so broadly define eco-terrorism as possibly to cover activists in a sit-in blockade at a store selling old-growth lumber.

McInnis denied he is motivated by post-Sept. 11 political opportunism. The hearings, he said, were scheduled last May. “I don’t think we need new legislation. We need awareness.”

The acts for which ELF and ALF claim responsibility are already illegal, he noted. “The question is, how do we get past the Robin Hood mystique some of these organizations are successful at building?”

There are disagreements within the broad environmental movement as to whether the actions of ALF and ELF actually constitute “terrorism.” Some contend that they don’t meet the definition because they aren’t directed at inflicting physical harm to people. In an unsolicited letter to McInnis, Ray Vaughan of WildLaw, a nonprofit environmental law firm, likened monkey-wrenching sabotage to the Boston Tea Party.

ELF itself doesn’t characterize what it does as terrorism. But ironically, Craig Rosebraugh, who was subpoenaed to testify at the hearings and until recently was ELF’s spokesman, may disagree. McInnis is using the eco-terrorism issue as a “divide and conquer” tactic against the environmental movement, he said. In a phone interview, he said that he differs from the ELF in viewing their actions as terrorism—“But I don’t consider that negative.”

“I think the actions they engage in are purposely conducted to cause that fright, to cause terror in industries to make them stop acting in ways that are contrary to the health of the environment,” said Rosebraugh. Successful social movements, he argued, “have used every tool in the toolbox. There’s the necessity of not only legal campaigns but also, in most, if not all, occasions, a wholehearted illegal campaign involving terrorism, property destruction and beyond.”

—Hank Hoffman

This story first appeared in In These Times.

Don’t You Be My Neighbor

Arbor Hill residents wonder why they weren’t asked to join newly formed neighborhood revitalization committee

‘How does a group of people make decisions for a entire community when those people don’t even live in the neighborhood?” asked Nat Davis, an Arbor Hill resident.

Davis was referring to a new committee appointed by Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings to work in conjunction with the Boston-based consulting firm the Community Builders on a plan to revitalize Arbor Hill in Albany.

Last Wednesday [June 12], the mayor held a meeting at the Albany Community Development Agency, where committee members mapped out goals and objectives for future meetings. The mayor said that he was bringing together a group of people who have a positive agenda and who are willing to work to improve the quality of life in Arbor Hill. The committee consists of 25 members, 10 of whom are city workers; the rest of the committee is made up of investors, religious leaders and a mere five people who live in the neighborhood.

But Davis said that he doesn’t understand why more members of the group do not actually live in Arbor Hill.

“We have the list, and 80 percent of the people on it don’t live in this community, and most of them have ties to the city in one way or another. That is rough,” said Davis. “We have neighborhood associations and people who have been involved with this from the start who could really represent the people and the issues of Arbor Hill.”

Anders Tomson, a private, nonprofit housing lender and chairman of the committee, disagrees that the appointed group doesn’t represent the neighborhood. He said that the mayor made a genuine effort to identify a number of stakeholders that would characterize the diversity of the area.

“In my mind, the most important stakeholders are the residents, and I think they are strongly represented,” said Tomson. “But you also have representation from faith-based groups, nonprofit organizations, elected officials, the financial community and advocates like Historic Albany.”

He said that while a lot of these people don’t live in Arbor Hill, they still have a vested interest in developing a stronger community; he said they also will have a say in how effective and realistic proposed ideas for the area may or may not be. Anders used himself as an example of someone who does not live in Arbor Hill—he lives in Delmar—but still would be affected by changes in the neighborhood.

“I can’t say from a resident’s perspective what’s important,” said Anders. “But I can say, given the billions of dollars that my company has financed in these types of projects, what’s realistic and what’s doable. . . . So I have a perspective that is valuable, and I think that a lot of these people on the committee do as well.”

Davis agrees that all types of professionals will be needed to put a community plan into action, but he questions why the interested parties can’t be more on the periphery of the project. He would like to see the residents set the agenda for what will be done in Arbor Hill—the other groups, he said, can jump in when they’re needed.

“At the end of the day, they go home,” said Davis. “But we are the ones who will be living here.”

Another complaint about the newly formed organization is that so far, its meetings have been scheduled early in the morning or at noontime, which are not convenient for many working neighborhood residents who would like to attend but would be better able to do so in the evening.

Many residents are also skeptical of the city’s new committee because this is the third time in two years that a consulting firm has been brought in and has promised sweeping changes for the neighborhood. In August 2001, the Albany Housing Authority hired a consulting team to “assess” the community’s needs as part of the $15-million dollar plan to tear down or rehabilitate most of the buildings on North Swan Street between Clinton Avenue and Livingston Street. At that time, many residents offered their input on what needed to be done to improve the area. Similarly, last October, the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development brought in a consulting firm to work with the community to establish revitalization goals for Arbor Hill. At that meeting, residents charged that that their requests fell on deaf ears. Davis said that nothing came of either meeting except a lot of expectations and promises that were never fulfilled.

David Casciotti, director of planning for the city of Albany, said the city is optimistic that this time will be different.

“If everyone puts the past behind them and gets on to the positive aspects of doing something, I think there is a good chance that it could happen,” said Casciotti. “If we can put the past aside and with the dedication that was expressed at the meeting, I am optimistic that positive results will be forthcoming.”

Casciotti said that there are a number of public hearings coming up (the first will be held on Tuesday, June 25, from 6 to 8 PM at the New Covenant Charter School) where residents will have an opportunity to voice their concerns.

“I want to see something good come out of this but I can’t see that happening with the way they are doing this,” said Davis. “Nobody can tell us better what we need than us.”

—Nancy Guerin

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